Bassam al-Kuwatli: “Syria Still Ruled by 20th Century Ideologies”

The Syrian Observer sits with Bassam al-Kuwatli, one of the co-founders of Ahrar, a liberal political party.

The Syrian opposition’s story after the revolution was a story of coalitions. A countless number of coalitions have been formed. No one claimed that they own a platform that leads them in the right direction for a future Syria.

Only a few groups tried to form political parties instead. A major attempt that did not work was the Al-Jumhuriyya (the Republic) Party, led by Hazm Nahar. A new fresh group has announced their own political party: Ahrar – The Syrian Liberal Party. The new party seems different, if for anything, for their fervency and commitment.

According to their platform, The Liberal Party aims to create a modern, unified Syrian state that adopts democratic values ​​and systems, the International Bill of Human Rights, and other charters and international agreements that guarantee individual freedoms. The party also adheres to secularism as a basic principle that preserves the state’s neutrality towards the various components and representations of the Syrian people.

The Syrian Observer is talking to one of the Party’s co-founders and its current president, Bassam al-Kuwatli. Kuwatli is a Syrian activist who was living mainly in Vancouver, Canada, before heading to Gaziantep, Turkey, to help the Syrian people in March 2013. He was one of the founders of the Syrian National Block in May 2011 and joined the Syrian National Council in November 2011 as an independent member. In addition, he is currently managing RMTeam, a company focused on research, M&E, and opinion polling throughout Syria.

Kuwatli spoke to The Observer’s Editor-in-chief, Wael Sawah. Below is the interview.

You have established a political party at a time when all other politicians believe that coalitions and blocs are more efficient. Are you swimming against the current?

Bassam Al-Kuwatli: I think that we are swimming with the current of logic, everyone else is swimming against it, and this is why they keep failing. Syrians despise politics, so most activists are trying to resolve political issues with non-political tools. It is exactly like if you are trying to weld a fence with a piece of tape.

Ahrar – The Syrian Liberal Party is the name of your party. Your website defines the party as a political party for Syrian citizens who share common values, goals and visions, seeking to achieve them through peaceful means. Is it fair to say that you are excluding many Syrians from joining the party?

Bassam Al-Kuwatli: Absolutely, Syrians talk about grand national projects, where they try to represent all Syrians, and it is impossible to represent 23 million Syrians. We believe that a grand national project should consist of building blocks consisting of political parties representing part of the Syrians. Those parties can then agree on the common dominator and act to achieve it.

Can we learn more about the Party, then?

Bassam Al-Kuwatli: Ahrar is a social liberal party that believes in individual Liberty as the way to break free from political, religious, and social repression and as a way where no one group or majority can dominate and dictate individuals’ lives and freedoms. Groups are still important, but they acquire their rights from the rights of their individual members, and not the other way around, as is the case now in our region.

At the same time, we recognize that poor people are not free. To free people we need to bring them out of poverty and provide them with an equal opportunity to learn, grow and contribute to the economy and their own well-being. This is especially important in the case of Syria, where over 95% of the population falls under the poverty line, and very few have the opportunity to contribute and grow.

Why is it important to focus on liberalism at this stage of the Syrian struggle?

Bassam Al-Kuwatli: In Syria, we are still ruled by old 20th-century ideologies, from Islamic, Communist/ Marxist, Socialist, Arab and Syrian Nationalists, and all are trying to impose their views on the society in its smallest details. This is why you find them fighting over issues such as if women should wear headscarves or if they should take them off. Almost none will argue for the right of women to decide what they want to wear or not wear. The same applies to most aspects of life, and this approach bogs us in trivial wars while killing the potential for modernization and economic growth. Syria is so much behind the rest of the world that we cannot afford this kind of time and resources wasting approach.

Many political groups revolve around the idea of separating the state from religion. Do you have a definite position regarding this issue?

Bassam Al-Kuwatli: We look at the matter slightly differently than our fellow secularists. While we believe that religion should not be controlled by politics and that the government should not be a tool in the hand of any religious group to promote its views and understandings, we still believe that it is the government’s role to protect religious freedoms. This includes the right of individuals to freely express their religious identities in the way they see fit, without discriminating against others.

Do you work with like-minded groups to form a greater bloc that shares similar ideas? If yes, who? If no, why not?

Bassam Al-Kuwatli: We are always communicating with other groups and trying to work collectively. Yet, this is not easy as there are very few new political groups forming, but we hope this will be easier in the future.

Do you have contacts with the Democratic Forces and Individuals Conference to be held in Stockholm?

Bassam Al-Kuwatli: No, we do not see this process as genuine at this stage, as it allows the SDF to claim openness to other groups without it providing any real concessions. A real genuine step will be to allow political parties to form and operate freely within NE Syria, even for those parties who disagree with SDF and its administration.

Ahrar – Liberal Party of Syria does not – I would assume – recognize SOC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition, right?

Bassam Al-Kuwatli: At this stage, no one can claim that it represents all Syrians, and it seems that SOC has given up on this claim. SOC, like all other de facto powers, needs to gain the trust of the population it rules to claim any representation, and we do not see this happening at this stage.

The de facto powers have led Syria to be divided into four regions run by four governments, not to mention foreign interventions. Has the political process reached an impasse? How does Ahrar – Liberal Party of Syria see the exit?

Bassam Al-Kuwatli: There are five regions or areas of control, including the occupied Golan.

The current trajectory will lead to either the full return of Assad’s regime into the whole of Syria, to a division of the country under the protection of foreign powers, or an ethno-sectarian division of power if an agreement can be reached in this direction.

Ahrar hopes and promotes a pluralistic and democratic political model outside of the areas controlled by Assad that can revive the hope of a better future for all Syrians. This preferably will happen in the light of rapprochement between NE and NW Syria but can also happen in either area when possible. This might seem far off at this stage, but it is our obligation as Syrians and Liberals to promote this model and advocate for it.

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